Sonia Nassery Cole Gets Personal:
Talks The Black Tulip, Being Thankful, Future Projects,
And The Power of Film
By Amber Topping
During the holidays, we often contemplate what it is we are thankful for — but should that be the only time of year we count our blessings? In a recent conversation with filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole, she illuminated the simple truth behind the people of Afghanistan: the many women and children looking for their next meal, or those who have just recently buried a loved one, all while still maintaining the gratitude for the small blessings in life. Passionate and empathetic, Cole is a strong woman with many sides. She is a humanitarian, accomplished filmmaker, writer and activist. But she’s also a woman with a unique voice that is important to be heard because of her unbelievable, personal experiences. “I’m getting ready to write my autobiography because that is something that nobody will believe,” she shares with a warm laugh. “I’ve been very silent and quiet about a part of my life that I will like to—it’s therapy. I want to do it for me.”
One such experience occurred during the filming of her anti-Taliban movie The Black Tulip, which you can read about in detail in Will I Live Tomorrow?, her recently released memoir. In the middle of shooting an important flashback scene of the Soviet Invasion of 1979 at a bookstore, a dusty white pickup truck approached the crew. There were eight armed men with guns pointed in their direction. They were members of the Taliban. Right away, one of the men demanded to speak to the boss, the one in charge. Bravely, Cole stepped forward. “I am in charge,” she told him. Because she is a woman, he didn’t want to accept her claim. He put the gun on her chest and demanded to talk to the real person in charge. She swatted the gun away and stood her ground. Knowing that they respond to fear, she showed the opposite — courage. She convinced him that they were filming an anti-Russian movie, rather than the anti-Taliban one they actually were making. The man relaxed, watched some footage, and was convinced she was telling the truth. A close call, but one of only many examples of the death threats and harm she and her crew faced during the making of the film.
A Bit of History
Born in Afghanistan, Cole grew up as the daughter of an Afghan diplomat. She was in Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion of 1979, but was able to escape and go to America right after the invasion. Brave even then, she decided to write a letter to President Reagan to ask for his help against the atrocities happening in Afghanistan. Needless to say, “by some miracle” he read her letter, invited her to the White House, and her “life changed because [she] had a mission in life.” She worked with Reagan to help the people of Afghanistan, and “since then nothing has changed” for Cole. More than 30 years later, her mission to help her people remains the same. “I am fighting for human rights for many, many years now, specifically for women’s rights in Afghanistan because it is so, so fragile” Cole emphasizes.
Afghanistan World Foundation
In 2002, Cole established the Afghanistan World Foundation. Since then it has become one of the biggest organizations of advocacy for Afghanistan, with many politicians and Hollywood celebrities helping to spread awareness. But why should we care? According to Cole, today “the biggest mission for the foundation is the women’s rights and to empower women in every way, shape, or form from giving them homes when they’re abused . . . to educate them, to educate their daughters, and that process to keep them safe from the people who are after to kill them . . . ” But the foundation is not just for the women and children; she points out that it’s also to help the men.“Everybody’s suffering there. Everybody.” And everyone can get involved in Cole’s foundation. There are school programs, a hospital that they started, emergency clinics, etc. You can choose to make a donation and decide where you would like that donation to go specifically. If you would like it to go to orphan care for instance, you can have your donation expressly directed there. Or if that’s not an option, there’s always advocacy. Ms. Cole reiterates that just talking about the foundation and helping get people involved does work. “Giving brings you so much joy,” she says humbly. “I feel so selfish because it’s such joy.”
The Power of Film
While humanitarian work is fulfilling for Cole, when she discovered that humanitarian aid wasn’t enough to get the word out, she turned to filmmaking because she “wanted the message to be stronger.” What if she could spread her optimistic message of hope through movie magic? She could become as those oral storytellers of old, and capture the essence of a people and their emotions through film rather than a tale told from one generation to the next. Cole was always fascinated with writing and directing, so one day she began to study it.
“There is no other medium that you can sit in a dark room and really focus for an hour, an hour and a half, on a dark screen. Today we are so distracted by telephone and emails and people around us that we can never focus on one thing. We are very distracted, except when you’re inside a theater,” Cole says. “They say a picture says a thousand words. That’s what film is about because you really, through a keyhole, you see—oh, my God, I had this thought about these people and this place, but here I am seeing something. And that’s the only movies you should do. To learn something from, to open a world to you that is unknown to you — that’s the power of film.”
It was because of this power of the film medium Cole decided to make, The Black Tulip, a movie about an Afghan family (inspired by real people) who open a restaurant in Kabul, Afghanistan called The Poet’s Corner with an open microphone where freedom of expression is encouraged despite the constant threats from the Taliban. The Black Tulip became the official Afghanistan entry for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and has helped spread the message about the plight of the Afghanistan people since. “It’s a historic piece that will never, ever be repeated again, at that moment in time in Afghanistan what was going on. And it’s forever. Our great grandchildren will see it. How incredible is that?” With an obvious enthusiasm for film, Cole continues. “As we grow, we see a film differently . . . like you see an old movie Casablanca when you are 18, and you see Casablanca today; you get a whole other story about it. We grow, and the movie stays the same, but we see it differently. I always think of the same movie, seeing it in 30 years from now because we evolve. As we evolve, not that the film moves, but we see it differently. We see it with wisdom, from the eyes of the wisdom, from the eyes of the experience. And we sympathize and empathize more with humanity. And we judge more. Or we judge less sometimes, depending on what we’re watching. It’s a very, very fun, exciting medium.”
Filming The Black Tulip and Writing Will I Live Tomorrow
Filming a movie isn’t always fun and games, however, as seen from the danger presented during the filming of The Black Tulip. Yet despite the risks of filming an anti-Taliban movie in Afghanistan, Cole made the decision to shoot the movie entirely on location. She wanted it to be authentic, not shoot a movie in China and pretend it was Afghanistan. Even though everybody else thought it was crazy, she decided to go anyway. “Being a woman, it was probably the most scary thing one can do to go to a country that women are not even allowed to walk alone without a man on the streets, to actually go and make an anti-Taliban movie.”
During filming, Cole faced danger on numerous occasions, from threats to kidnapping to corruption (many times from the Taliban). “The worse feeling was you couldn’t trust anybody. You don’t know if you turn your back he’s going to just take a knife and put it in your back.”
Finding strength from the experience, she declares, “I am never going to be the woman I was before going to Afghanistan.”
Cole decided to write about her shocking experiences filming The Black Tulip in her book Will I Live Tomorrow? The worst day during the shoot for Cole was the final one. She was being held, extorted for money, and after all that she barely made it off the airport runway. “The last day for me was the day from hell . . . if I got the closest to feeling death, the closest—I really didn’t think I could make it [out] alive that day,” she recalls.
Nonetheless, in the midst of all the danger and uncertainty, Cole maintained optimism and a hope that things will get better in Afghanistan, which is present both in the film and the book. The name of the film The Black Tulip refers to the Afghan flower of the same name, which can be seen as a metaphor for strength and resilience. “That’s the beautiful part of Afghanistan and the beauty of the people of Afghanistan. You never see hopelessness on the streets,” she proudly shares. “Nobody acts like a victim. Nobody. That is the most beautiful thing in life I learned from my people.”
The people of Afghanistan have so much gratitude, she explains. Continuously she found the people saying, “I am thankful for what I have. It could be worse.” Referring to the people in Afghanistan and all the trials they face, Cole continues:
“Like, what are you thankful for? I mean, look at your life. You don’t have food to eat, your children are starving, and you’re fighting every single day. You don’t know if you’re going to wake up in the morning and have a bomb drop over your head. You don’t know nothing. Your daughters cannot go to school. They’re stuck in the house, but they’re thankful—this could be worse. It could be worse. My daughter could have been dead. My daughter could have been sick. Yeah, it really renews you as a human being when you go there and you come here to this beautiful country America, [in] which the essence of democracy’s practiced, and you have everything at your beck and call. You work hard, and you can be anybody you want to be in this country. Freedom of everything is served to you on a platter. And you see so many people pissed off and unhappy, complaining about such minute things. And you go like, ‘Oh, man. You don’t know nothing . . . about life.’ I have become that person that every day puts my head on the ground and I thank God for what I have. I’m not a religious person; I’m [a] highly spiritual person, but I really do appreciate — just the sip of clean, cold water when it goes down my throat. I say thank God for that because people don’t have that!”
Learning from the people of Afghanistan, Cole felt she became a much better storyteller and director. “Those experiences taught me a lot about humanity and life.”
The Hijack of Islam
Taking from these experiences, Cole has many projects in the works. Right now, she is working on a documentary called The Hijack of Islam. She believes with a fervor it’s “really important to show the world that [there are] 1.5 billion peaceful Muslims all over Africa, and Asia, and America—around the world, [they] should see what the Taliban is and who they are. And they are the anti-thesis of Islam. Everything they say and do is against Islam. My whole objective is to denounce them as Muslim because they are not even a half of a half of a percent, and these people have destroyed the name of Islam. And people are scared to talk about them because they are these savages, and destroy countries, and destroy humanity because of their ignorances and stupidity.” But Cole isn’t afraid.
For the documentary, Cole plans to “meet with all heads of state starting from Afghanistan and [going] all the way to Iran to Jordan to Saudi Arabia to Lebanon to Syria to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, America, South America, and talk with these heads of state; and talk with a shopkeeper for example that has three daughters and lives in Jordan and he’s Muslim, and say, “What do you think of what these people are doing?” And then interview Islamic scholars, and ask them about their actions, and then actually interview them also so they can say who they are. Then, let the world come to the conclusion based on the knowledge [of] what the world thinks of them, who they are because they don’t have to do anything. They just have to be themselves, and you will know what they’re saying is insane. All these things are something that needs to be discovered and told because we don’t get that in our news today at all.”
Cole is also busy working on a commercial film called The Hidden, which should have fans excited. It’s a supernatural story “like The Sixth Sense” Cole shares, and will be entirely shot in Istanbul, Turkey. The film is about Jinn, beings every Muslim believes in. “They are supernatural beings that are among us. They are not good, and they are not bad. But they are invisible to our eyes. So you don’t see any face or any monsters or anything. You see their signs of what they can do.” Cole explains. “It’s a story of a Harvard graduate that goes to the University of Istanbul to study, to get a thesis in Islamic—mystical ways of Islam. And he falls in love with a Turkish girl, and then all hell breaks loose.”
As of now, the treatment is done, and Cole has had meetings in Turkey talking to producers who are interested. Now she is just waiting for her son, Christopher Cole, to finish the script (he has 23 pages to go). As soon as he’s done, she’ll be ready to go and start filming.
Women’s Rights, Human Rights
Discussing her movies isn’t all Cole has to talk about, though. She also has quite a bit to say about the progression of women’s rights around the world, including in the United States. “If you can believe it, even in the United States in the last 10 years women have gone backward, not forward. There is less women senators, less women congressmen, less women business owners then there was 10 years ago. It’s happening in Europe, and you see what’s happening in the world. Forget Afghanistan. In the world! On the atrocities of women, the women mutilations, the women trafficking, I mean, it’s just a mess. And we can’t sit here in the West and pretend it’s not happening. We have to do something about it. Because when human rights is violated anywhere, it’s violated everywhere.”
She continues with passion, “And that’s not being feminist or all that because I’m not that. I really care about humanity and women’s rights is human rights. . . it’s not about being a thousand percent equal to men and equal to women. All that stuff means nothing to me, but I just believe that every one of us has the right to be the best we can be. And anybody who’s not allowed to be that, we have to stand up for them and let them be. That’s God given gifts, you know? It’s our birthright to be free.”
Being a Woman
As much as Cole has accomplished (for example, she just received the Freedom to Write Award from Pen Center USA, which honors writers who have fought bravely for the freedom of expression, and according to Cole, meant “everything” to her), it’s not always easy being a woman in today’s world. “There’s so many sides of me: my spiritual side, my woman’s side . . . I think for women, we always feel like you have to choose a career, your dream, or you choose family, and be married and be happy.”
Cole contemplates: “I sacrificed a lot to be who I am today. Do I have regrets? No. Do I miss certain things in life? Absolutely. But life is bittersweet. You can’t have it all. I don’t believe you can have it all. But it’s sad that we can’t. Would you choose a selfish act of you being beautiful and happy in life, and having everything you could possibly want in life? Or do something which would make a dent in this world? I chose the latter. I wish I didn’t have to.”
Despite the sacrifices, Cole remains positive, thankful, and focused on her dream. “Every life I touch . . . that process makes me stronger. And know that everything happens for a reason. It was meant to be for me to do this. I am definitely not confused about what I’m supposed to be.”
Cole’s mission is clear: “to give voice to the voiceless around the world.” With full dedication she proclaims, “I truly believe that Afghanistan will be free when the Afghan women can join the society and help their fathers, brothers, husbands to move forward my country to another level."
Again, there are many different facets to Cole. When asked if she ever felt lonely, she said, “Well, I’m alone, but I’m never lonely because I have my head attached to me, and this head is so busy — keeps me going.” It will be interesting to see where Cole goes next.
Top Photograph - Credited to Ian McGlockin Sinclair.